A smarter education strategyh/t Schools Matter
By Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves | September 7, 2009
AS PRESIDENT OBAMA prepares to address the nation’s students via classroom TVs and streaming Internet tomorrow, all eyes are on America’s schools. After years of unprecedented federal involvement, educators and the public have grown weary of high-sounding reforms that never seem to achieve the desired results. But we can’t give up on our schools. As we watch students from other nations outperform the United States, it is more important than ever that the Obama administration get its education strategy right.
Charter schools, pay-for-performance for teachers, alternative routes into teaching, and closing failing schools are the policy mix the administration is pushing. Most of its education ideas differ little from those of prior administrations. The ideas aren’t new, and the evidence driving policy is just as questionable as ever.
Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are rushing headlong down a path that in many ways replicates for schools the same market-based principles that have left our economy a shambles. We know that inventing new finance models created a hollow prosperity for a few.
Likewise, we cannot create a separate underclass of public schools that charters leave behind. Financial rewards for a few teachers won’t raise quality among all of them. And shutting failing schools, like property foreclosures, fails to address the underlying problems.
There are better ways. We have seen this firsthand in our studies of high-achieving school systems around the world.
Finland’s schools lead the world on the Program for International Student Achievement tests. When its unemployment rate hit almost 20 percent in 1992, Finland reinvented itself to become the world’s most economically competitive country. Its strategy? Education.
Unlike US policies urging us to “lower the barriers’’ to let just about anyone teach, Finland has made teaching such a prestigious occupation that only 10 percent of applicants to Finland’s teacher education programs are admitted. Their system isn’t expensive - teachers are paid at the median rate for comparable nations. But there are good working conditions in all schools and a very different social ethic: Finns support “collective responsibility,’’ not narrow “accountability,’’ for improving schools. Strong schools don’t compete against weak ones, but help them instead. The result? Finland has the world’s smallest achievement gap between students based on their social class background.
Or consider a nation with an urban mix similar to the United States. The London borough of Tower Hamlets climbed from the worst-achieving district in England to the top half in the last decade. In Tower Hamlets - where more than half of the students are immigrants - our recent study found educational leaders have built ties with local community groups, particularly imams from the mosques that serve the district’s large Bangladeshi population. They reversed high truancy rates and brought the community inside the schools to serve as classroom aides, translators, and social service providers. Schools set their own improvement targets together, rather than reacting to ones from outside; and when one school sank into failure, all the others rallied round to help.
Finally, consider the Canadian province of Alberta - the second highest performer on the PISA tests after Finland. The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, created by the government with the teachers union, receives 2 percent of the provincial education budget and has engaged 90 percent of all schools in the province in designing their own local innovations and solutions to educational problems.
We’ve found in Finland, Tower Hamlets, and Alberta paths not taken in US education today. There is nothing in the new administration’s policies that provides incentives for strong schools to help struggling ones, least of all where charter schools are concerned. Pay-for-performance schemes offer market incentives that motivate a few teachers rather than providing the mission and conditions that energize all of them. There are proven ways to lift underperforming schools rather than simply shutting them down.
It isn’t too late for this administration to reconsider its plan. In almost all his policies, Obama has proven to be a man of the world. But in education, we seem to be re-treading outworn paths from the past. Why not choose the bolder paths not yet taken in our educational system’s much-hailed “race to the top’’ and join those schools at the top of the world already?
Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves are professors in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and authors of “The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change.’’